"The flight isn't over until the airplane is in the chocks!" I can't remember how many times I've heard that phrase, but I used to think it was nothing more than one of those snappy slogans that, over time, had lost its original meaning. However, the events of a flight ten years ago changed my mind forever about the wisdom of the proverb.
I had just passed my instrument checkride when my wife and I set off on an uneventful flight from Jacksonville, North Carolina, to northern Ohio in a rented Piper Warrior I had used to finish my IFR training. This was a visit to my family home--a familiar flight I had made several times during the 160 flight hours I had logged.
The return leg on Sunday presented a few challenging decisions to a newly-commissioned instrument pilot. I monitored the progress of a cold front that passed through Ohio, and by Sunday morning it was producing a line of heavy showers west of Pittsburgh; the worst of which was centered on my planned route of flight.
After several conversations with flight service and a review of the available options I decided to delay my return flight to allow the weather to pass to the east. This had the added benefit of allowing the departure airfield’s weather to improve to 1,000 feet overcast and three miles in haze, a condition which would satisfy a personal minimum for this flight: I would not takeoff if the departure airport’s weather was below circling minimums in case I needed to return to the airport. My wife is my willing adventure partner, and fellow GA enthusiast, but she wasn’t a rated pilot at that time. Although I had not discussed my alternate plans with her ahead of time, she readily supported my decision to delay the flight.
A few hours later weather conditions improved, and we loaded the airplane, taxied for takeoff, and climbed to a cruising altitude of 8,000 feet. After passing through an area of solid instrument meteorological conditions and light turbulence over Pittsburgh, the weather began to gradually improve. By the time we reached southwestern Virginia the few remaining cumulus clouds were just enough to illuminate the effects of the setting sun. It was like a fireworks show celebrating my first actual instrument flight without the assistance of my instructor.
The weather ahead of me was CAVU. Although my flight was delayed several hours, I had cleared the Appalachian Mountains during the daytime, which met another personal minimum I had set for the flight. All of my concerns were now behind me. All that remained was a simple VFR night flight back into my local airport for a full stop landing on a generous runway.
Four hours after takeoff, I was ready to descend to pattern altitude at Albert J. Ellis Airport in Jacksonville, North Carolina. The AWOS reported ceiling and visibility unlimited, and light winds favoring Runway 5. As I descended to join the pattern on a forty-five degree entry, one of the local commuters announced his position on the ILS Runway 5 over the unicom. The airport has 7,100 feet of paved runway. The ramp is on the east side of the field, about 5,000 feet from the approach end of Runway 5. The commuter terminal is on the northeast side of the ramp and the FBO is on the southeast side of the ramp.
Once established on downwind, I located the commuter, an Embraer Brasilia, on long final. For a reason that now escapes me, I was in a hurry to get on the ground. I turned at the earliest opportunity thinking that the higher speed of the commuter would enable him to clear the runway before I landed. Finding myself in unfamiliar territory--a close downwind to a short base and final at airspeeds that prevented flap deployment--caused me to be well behind the airplane as I struggled to attain landing parameters.
Because the ramp was about 5,000 feet from the approach end of Runway 5, I decided to keep my speed up on final and use the first taxiway (approximately 1,900 feet down the runway) as my landing aim point. From there I planned to fly the airplane in ground effect for several hundred feet before finally touching down and exiting on the second taxiway, approximately 3,300 feet from the approach end. This would be the shortest way to the GA parking area and require the least amount of taxiing.
I could see the commuter clear the runway ahead of me at the third taxiway, but I had failed to notice his touchdown point. Since he was on an ILS approach, I assumed he had touched down at the approach end, but it turned out I was wrong. The commuter had evidently flown the approach to land near the second taxiway, and had I not been so preoccupied inside my own cockpit I would have noticed it. Unbeknownst to me, I was on a collision course with his wake vortex since I was planning an approach about 1,400 feet short of his actual touchdown point.
I had just crossed the approach end of the runway and was still well above the runway when I realized my error. The Warrior began to violently pitch up and roll to the left, reacting to the violent wake turbulence vortex generated by the commuter. Full right aileron had little effect on the rate of roll, and I quickly pushed the yoke and the throttle forward as if they were racing each other. Before I had time to do anything else, it was over as abruptly as it had begun. Now a hundred feet lower than I was a moment ago, I retarded the throttle, abandoned my plan of flying in ground effect and made a normal landing at the earliest opportunity while trying to arrest my heart rate. Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good, and I definitely fit that category during this landing.
Looking back on it, I now realize that the excess speed I was carrying on final and my more rapid than normal rate of descent was probably what saved us that night.
I have always been a student of NTSB reports and accident analyses. Sometimes, these reports have left me wondering how a pilot could possibly have gotten himself into the situation that caused the accident, but now I know. My own personal minimums now include a caution against extending flights to the point where the landing becomes the top priority. I also teach my students that there’s no remedy like time to dissolve the invisible threat of wake turbulence. Had I not been in such a rush to land I could have extended my downwind leg and monitored the landing of the commuter, thus preventing a near brush with an NTSB report.
Rob Krieg, AOPA 2572116, is a United States Marine Corps Naval Flight Officer. A certified flight instructor at Kadena Air Force Aero Club in Okinawa, Japan, he has accumulated more than 1,300 hours in 11 years of flying.
Look for the latest installment of “Never Again” in the January issue of AOPA Pilot. Read about the wild ride, which the pilot won’t soon forget.